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14 The Serial Position Effect

The likelihood of memorizing a particular item in a list is related to its "serial position."
Specifically, people tend to forget the items in the middle of a list. Conversely, people tend to
remember the first and last items of a list. The two specific pheonenoma are referred to as
"primacy" and "recency."
Outside of list memorization, this affects our lives in other ways as well:
You remember your first kiss, but probably not your second.
You probably remember the last time you went to your favorite restaurant, but not the time
before that.
These phenomena can be exploited in many various ways as influence tools.

The Law of Primacy

When Lund first presented his Law of Primacy in Persuasion, he presented no statistical test of
strength of his findings (Crano, 1977, p. 88). Instead, he simply demonstrated that after
sequentially presenting a test group of students two sides of an opposing issue, the
communication coming first (whether pro or con) influenced the students significantly more than
the one coming second (Hovland, 1957, p. 3).

This questionable result, albeit noteworthy and significant, led to more detailed studies from,
among others, Asch (1946), Cohen (1955), and McGuire. Aschs examination into the Law of
Primacy involved a list of adjectives first describing a man named Jim in a positive light
immediately followed by a list of adjectives suggesting Jim as an unfriendly person. These
results proved very interesting, showing that students -- although clearly having been introduced
to Jim in negative situations -- believed overall that Jim was a likable guy, thus establishing
the Law of Primacy (Hovland, 1957). Cohen performed studies associating ones cognitive need,
either high or low, with their likelihood for acceptance of motivating material presented first or
second; and he subsequently determined that those with low cognitive needs were positively
affected if they received the motivating material prior to the informational communication, and
negatively affected if they received the two parts in reverse order (Hovland, 1957, p.136).
Finally, McGuire tested the outcome to communications in which the audience is first presented
with a desirable message followed by undesirable messages, and a second situation in which the
order is reversed. McGuires study again supported the Law of Primacy demonstrating that
subjects who received the undesirable messages first learned the contents of the whole series of
communications less well than did those who received the desirable messages first (Hovland,
1957, p.137).
This discussion will explore both Cohen and McGuires studies later as they relate to other
theories one must consider when examining the importance of structuring a persuasive argument;
Aschs study, however, does raise critical ideas one must understand in order to grasp how the
Law of Primacy operates. The idea of making a good first impression has nearly become
clich; however, when one considers it, clichs and stereotypes were developed somehow and
must have proven true at some point, otherwise they would have since been forgotten. The first
impression is a perfect example, and clearly presents itself in Aschs study because Jims list of
traits essentially took these students through a day in the life of Jim, beginning with the crucial
introduction. So how is it that first impressions, and for that matter the Law of Primacy, happen?

Crano delineates a clear explanation of three hypotheses for the Law of Primacy Asch surmised
through his study: change of meaning, inconsistency discounting, and attention decrement. First,
the change of meaning hypothesis explains that when one is first presented with an idea of
something or someone, it becomes almost necessary to change the meaning of later ideas in an
attempt to maintain consistency in ones external perceptions (Crano, 1977, p. 89). For
example, if one were to assume from the first day of any particular course that the professor
would be easy because at first they seemed overly nonchalant and assigned little coursework,
when only three classes later the professor assigned heavy reading and maintained a strict
demeanor, the student would change the meaning of the situation to explain that the professor
would have been nice had the class done their assigned homework on time. Second, the
inconsistency discounting hypothesis explains that later descriptors on [Aschs] stimulus list
were discounted if inconsistent with earlier trait objectives (Crano, 1977, p. 89). On the other
hand, if one were to go to a restaurant and order the same meal because they had enjoyed it on a
previous occasion, and, unfortunately, the second time it was unsavory, this person may discount
the second time due to the ingredients not being as fresh as the original dish. Lastly, the attention
decrement hypothesis presupposes a process analogous to a progressive decline in attention to
[Aschs] trait descriptors over the course of the complete list (Crano, 1977, p. 90). Essentially,
this hypothesis is simple to understand, suggesting that once one determines they have an
acceptable understanding of the information presented to them, they will pay less attention as
more information is presented and only recall the first impression. Since Asch first presented
these hypotheses, attention decrement has been studied at length by Anderson and associates
(1965), Brink (1974), and Hendrick and Costantini (1970); and each have provided further
support for this premise as the strongest explanation for the Law of Primacy pertaining to the
basic serial position effect (Crano, 1977, p. 91).